When I was 18 I was sexually harassed at work. I was a clerk in a bookstore. It was otherwise my idea of a dream job. The owner was gay, I was straight, but that didn’t matter to him. The dynamic was suffocating, his attentions unwanted, remarks unwelcome, intrusively leering eyes resented. I found myself in a constant state of rage and embarrassment and powerlessness.
I loved my job. I was working my way through college at the time and the job was perfect for me. Except … that. So I finally had to decide. Reluctantly, after much self doubt and examination, I quit. I couldn’t handle it any more. It was affecting my health and my ability to sleep. And I was angry all the time.
It was the first time in my life I actually knew real hatred. It was an execrable ordeal with only one positive. It taught me empathy and insight into the ordeal women who are victims of sexual harassment endure. It also taught me that many of the cliches that are applied to situations like that are wholly inappropriate.
The dynamic was clear and well defined. He was my employer. He had all the power. We were not two adults on a level playing field. It was not a flirtation that I could pass off with a joke or a cutting remark. It was a series of assaults characterized by relentless violations, intrusions into my sacred personhood, a kind of implacable symbolic rape that simply wouldn’t stop. I was a kid and he was a full grown man with terrifying power. He could take away a job I loved on a whim if I wasn’t careful. In the end I robbed him of that power, but at a bitter price that left a scar that took many years to heal.
Needless to say I take the complaints of sexual harassment levelled by three women (so far) against New York governor Andrew Cuomo seriously. They should be taken seriously. Cuomo held all the power and he abused that power. He’s also smart enough to know exactly how much he abused that power. Not only are his disavowals and flaccid mea culpas not enough, they’re shameful. He needs to come clean, without any hint or suggestion that it was somehow the women who got it wrong. He also needs to be prepared for the fact that if there are other victims then they will probably come forward sooner or later.
The Me Too movement is now 15 years old and Cuomo had all the cutting edge enlightened information on the topic he needed to know better. For instance, Cuomo had no business asking an aide about her sexual history. That was wholly inappropriate and he knew it.
What’s more, the personal dynamics of the situation made his abuses even more inappropriate than they were to begin with. Again, it wasn’t a level playing field. He was governor of the state of New York. The women claiming harassment were each in positions significantly less powerful. There was no excuse for his abuse of that power.
Notice that nowhere so far in this article have I mentioned that Cuomo is a Democrat. I didn’t mention it because it’s not relevant. If we are going to be the moral leaders of America then we must differentiate ourselves from Republican hacks who would make this topic about party and only about party. It’s about right and wrong and that’s all. Any talk of how “the Republicans get away with this kind of thing all the time” is shameful. They get away with it because they’re evil, disgusting hypocrites, and we will lose our right to call them that if we begin by acting like them.
Women are all too aware of the shifting language of equivocation in matters such as this. Words like, “I was just joking,” or “I’m sorry you took it that way,” or “calm down, you’re behaving like a child” are all too familiar and all too infuriating. They are gaslighting words intended to shift the blame onto the victim and should not be tolerated, especially today.
New York Attorney General Letitia James is opening an independent investigation into these allegations against Cuomo. I am content to let her investigation lead where it may. But whatever the outcome, the only final arbiters of whether or not justice has been properly served are the victims themselves. Only they can say definitively if they are satisfied with the outcome, if indeed the outcome is satisfactory at all. In assisting that outcome Cuomo can start by being perfectly candid. He’s a highly intelligent man who knew better. It’s time for him to start acting like it and stop using the unworthy language of equivocation, evasion and minimization. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.